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Shine On, You Crazy Diamond
He’s a legend, an icon and a farmer. His hit singles tally in this country is surpassed only by Elvis Presley and Cliff Richard. He is, above all else, the man who brought... ...us ‘Do You Want Your Old Lobby Washed Down’ and ‘Carrots From Clonoun’. Behold the unexpurgated brendan shIne on sex, drugs, drink, the accordion, grunge, GATT and Donie Cassidy’s wig. Interview: Liam Fay. Pix: Cathal Dawson.
Liam Fay, 11 Jan 1995
“I often wonder, Bejaysus, when I get up on a stage, do they think I’m an artist or a fuckin’ map of Ireland,” muses Brendan Shine.
The confusion is easy to understand. Brendan Shine is no ordinary mortal. He is farmer, publican, ballroom legend and cultural icon. Metaphorically and literally, he marks the spot where the three counties meet, Longford, West Meath and Roscommon.
According to Brian Carthy’s indispensable volume The A-Z Of Country & Irish Stars (the definitive text on these matters), he is “the Irish entertainer extraordinaire.” More than anything else though, he is the man whose set list includes ‘Do You Want Your Old Lobby Washed Down’, ‘Carrots From Clonoun’, ‘The Dugeens From The Crockery’ and ‘O’Brien Has No Place To Go’.
In his own disturbingly inimitable way, Shine is one of the most important figures in the history of popular music in this country. Get this: only Cliff Richard and Elvis Presley have had more hits than he in the Irish charts. At the age of 47, he has already chalked up an astonishing thirty one years in this crazy business he calls show. His latest album, Everlasting, is his twenty-third release. His most recent single is entitled ‘Shoe The Donkey’.
When I meet the great man in the lobby of Dublin’s Central Hotel, he makes two immediate enquiries: Where do I live? and Where do my people come from? He then delivers a detailed dissertation on both areas, their inhabitants and the number of times he has played there. “I do get requests for songs about places that I don’t believe even exist,” he says later. “Ah sure, it’s only a bit of crack. The only people who take it seriously are Donegal people. They’re always attacking me for not singing any songs about places in Donegal.”
Pressed to explain his astonishing longevity and popularity, Brendan Shine offers the following:
“I entertain a certain type of people who aren’t affected by trends. They’re not phasey. I was never a man for the Beboppers. I was never a cowboy. Well, I was but I never dressed up (laughs). The reason I lasted is that I stuck with my own type of thing, did it as well as I could and ignored copying other people. I’m like the auld seagull with a broken wing. She’ll never fly but she’ll never sink either.”
H H H H H H
Liam Fay: You started playing professionally in the early ’70s, while the showband era of excess and debauchery was still in full swing. Did you see much action on the sex and drugs front yourself during those years?
Brendan Shine: Ah sure lookit, no matter where you go these days, won’t you find that? If you go into the back of a church even, won’t you find that? I know fellas who did lots of their courting at choir practise or in graveyards. That always went on. But the showbands always tried to have the wild image of the groupies and the group sex and that type of thing. I suppose a bit of it went on. There was the hard men in the business. I used to hear about these fellas who would take three or four women a night.
Who had the most impressive reputation at the time?
Well, I’d be afraid to say because most of them could be dead now. I wouldn’t like to embarrass them in the grave. Lookit, that kind of thing was generally spoken about amongst the modern bands. They boasted about things like that. Country bands probably had a certain amount of it going on but, shall we say, kept it under wraps.
Are you talking about yourself here?
(Laughs) No, I never fell into that group. I was based in Athlone and most of the big pop bands came from Dublin really. It was very much a city scene. But I don’t think anything went on then like what goes on nowadays. It was just that it was something new that time and it was hyped. There was no divorce, very little separation so, naturally, fellas had other women. They were in the limelight and the women were throwing themselves at a lot of these pop stars so, I suppose, they could’ve had anything they wanted. Nowadays, people are out in the open about things like that. It had to be hidden then, that was the horrible thing about it. That’s what made it so unique at the time, the forbidden fruit.
And were you not partial to a bit of forbidden fruit yourself?
It was never really part of my life. I never missed it. At the time I’d probably envy all those big stags but I’m afraid that’s as far as it went. I was very interested in progressing in the auld music end of it. I wouldn’t have been playing in them situations where you’d have these hordes of gorgeous women in mini skirts chasing you. I remember playing in Drimnagh one time and nine or ten of these ones came in. We were dressed in pink suits at the time and one of the women says, “Jaysus, Mary, look at the bollox with the melodeon, isn’t he brutal?” So, the likes of her wouldn’t be roaring to leap into bed with me, would she?
But surely The Brendan Shine Band had their own fair share of willing female fans, in more rural areas for instance?
Oh, there was, yeah. We had a lot of young people who followed us too. And I suppose, in the courting days, a lot of that went on. It used to be a great thing one time if they got a lift home in the wagon. Of course, I was always driving so I never knew what went on in the back of the wagon (laughs).
Do you think the female members of bands were treated badly in those days?
I do. A woman that went up on stage that time, and flirted about in a mini skirt or showed off her body in any way, she was regarded as a tart. In a country hall twenty-five years ago, with a male dominated audience, I honestly don’t think that they acknowledged her singing talents. Most of them were more interested in what sort of an arse or a pair of legs she had on her. I think that was very sad. It was a tough hard life for those women. It was a rough, rough game.
Was drink the only drug that you indulged in at the time?
Yeah, in our scene, drink was the only drug and it was too much of that that was the problem. Sad to say that a lot of the leisure time in my earlier days in the music game seemed to circle around drink. There’d always be late nights and there’d always be parties. There was a lot of drink around in those days. We’d think nothing of finishing a dance at 2am and then going to a music session till 6 or 7 or later even. A lot of people I knew became alcoholics and lost everything they had through drink. I don’t know which is the saddest, the fact that you’re an alcoholic or the fact that you’ve lost everything and you’re not an alcoholic anymore because you can’t afford to drink. A lot of people threw it all away on parties and drink.
Was there a particular moment when you decided to cut down on your own drinking to avoid falling into that trap?
I was very aware of the trap. When the business began to slip and when the boom started to go out of the business, it came time to sort the men from the boys. The people who started to knuckle down, like I did, survived, those who didn’t didn’t survive. Around ’75/’76, I made the decision to cut out the messin’ and knuckle down.
Traditionally, it’s been impossible for gays or lesbians working on the Irish showband or country circuit to come out publicly. How do you feel about the persistent rumours which suggest that there are a number of household-name stars who lead double lives as active gays?
If you dressed well and if you spoke well and if you were any way at all other than the big macho man you were always called a poofter. I think that was disgraceful. Barry McGuigan was always slagged for saying something that the shit was bet out of us for not saying, which was Thank You. He was the most mannerly man around and he got slagged for it. The same with Daniel O’Donnell. I know Daniel for a long, long time and he’s a pure and utter gentleman. And because he dresses well and is polite, he’s slagged into the ground.
But, as you know, there are stories about other stars that are based on much more than the fact that they dress well or are polite.
I know all the people from the old showband days. I drank with them till the early hours of the morning and I never once stood with my back to the wall. I was never afraid of them, I can tell you that (laughs).
If the one-in-ten figure is true then surely at least some of them were gay?
I don’t accept that figure. But it’s getting so trendy to be homosexual now that it will probably be one in nine before long.
What is your own attitude to homosexuality?
There was always a certain amount of homosexuality around but when something is put down like it becomes very attractive to some people. If there’s a lot of hype around about something like homosexuality, there’s always the people who are doubtful and they can be easily swayed. And I think there’s a lot of fellas becoming homosexual that shouldn’t be at all. The pendulum comes down on the wrong side. I don’t want to get into the tricky end of it but when something is getting a lot of world hype it becomes very trendy. Like, the joke about the fella who asked this Paddy was he a queer and he said, “Oh Jaysus no, I only help them out when they’re busy.” (Laughs). He was one of these doubtfuls. There’s a lot of people who could be one way or the other and I think they could be pushed.
By the legalisation of homosexuality?
No, by the trendiness of it. There’s a lot of people that were married and had families and they eventually turned out to be gay and now they’re homosexual. I’m not an authority but I kinda find that hard to understand.
Are you referring to a specific instance?
Yeah, a friend of mine. And that was brought about by the fact that it became very hip and things weren’t going that well at home in the marriage. All of a sudden, it became very fashionable to be gay with all these Gay Rights marches and so on. The next thing, my friend was marching in one of these, and announcing that he was gay.
How did you react to this news?
I was puzzled. Obviously, as a married man, I would have to say that the straight way is the right way, but I’d never preach that. I have a feeling that circumstances maybe pushed him one way rather than the other. He probably got involved in that circle and that was that. Maybe he’s happy now but he’s never told me that he’s happy.
Would you still regard him as your friend?
I would, yeah.
A lot of the so-called showband Mafia became involved in politics after the boom days were over. Were you ever tempted to follow in that direction?
Well, there was a lot of politics involved in the music business at that time. It was the politics of if-you-play-for-us-you-can’t-play-for-so-and-so, this kind of thing. I always resented that kind of thing and gradually I was forced to build up a circuit of my own, which I still work actually. By the time most of the big promoters realised that they needed me, most of their ballrooms were closed. The fact that I had to fight so hard for gigs would’ve made me a bit bitter at the time.
Was Albert Reynolds one of the big promoters that you’re referring to?
No, I never met Albert. He was gone out of the business before I started.
Are any of those people involved in national politics now?
I dunno. They probably are but I wouldn’t come across them. There was a lot of childishness involved in the business then. And every day when I see what happens in politics, when I see governments being brought down and we all know what happened recently, I think there’s a lot of childishness in it too. I was asked to run for the Dáil one time, you know.
For which party?
I’m non-political. I don’t get involved in politics at all. I was just approached in the back room of a pub one night and asked to run. It was one of the major parties.
Fianna Fáil, by any chance?
Fianna Fáil, yeah. I come from a very Fianna Fáil area. My Mom and Dad used to have an auld dancehall at home and all the major Fianna Fáil meetings in the locality were held there. But I think that it’s a terrible thing that just because you come from a family that was Fianna Fáil, people automatically think that you’re Fianna Fáil too. I had to defend myself in a paper not so long ago when Pat Rabbitte described Albert Reynolds as “the Brendan Shine wing of the Fianna Fáil party.” I didn’t know about it until another paper rang me in England, where I was on tour, and asked me about it.
Did you sue?
I didn’t have to. Pat Rabbitte apologised. He only said it for a bit of crack. Sure, I’d say the same thing about Pat Rabbitte. He only said it as a jovial thing but I still had to defend myself because I play for all kinds of people, all denominations. I’m not attached to any political party.
You must’ve been tempted though by the thought of a cushy number in Dáil Eireann?
No, I wasn’t. I have no interest in politics and I don’t think I’d have anything to offer politics, apart maybe from singing ‘Shoe The Donkey’ up and down the Dáil corridors. And I’m sure there’d be plenty of donkeys in there to join in with me (laughs).
If you had decided to stand, would you have won a seat?
I’d have been very disappointed if I did because I think it would’ve been a total disgrace. That’s what happened to this country. Too many people got into the Dáil on the basis of their popularity and auld stupid things like that, and they didn’t have a notion about politics. It would be a terrible disaster for someone like me to get elected but that kind of thing has been going on for too long in this country.
You’ve spoken elsewhere about what you see as the ongoing destruction of Irish culture. How do you define Irish culture?
Culture is the kind of thing that you don’t really know what it is until it’s gone. It’s a pity, for instance, that we don’t hold an Irish passport anymore, that we have an EEC passport. Progress is good but progress has made some of our people deny their own culture, certainly in terms of music. I know young people from my home town and from all over the country and, when they were in Ireland, if they heard a Brendan Shine record, they’d probably be on the point of nausea. They’d have to go to the other side of the street. The sad thing is that when I go to America or England, I’ll meet those same fellas several years later in a pub in New York or a club in London and they’ll be up on my shoulders crying and singing Irish songs. “That was a great old song you had out a few years back, Jaysus we really miss all that stuff,” this is the kind of thing they’ll be saying to me. While we’re sitting in Ireland, we like to give our culture away. When we go away from Ireland, we want our culture back.
In that context, would you agree with Jim Hand’s memorable categorisation of Radio 2 or 2FM some years ago as “Radio Downtown Fucking Burbank”?
No, I don’t agree with that at all. I was never accused of calling Radio 2 anything. I was one of the first people played on Radio 2. At times, I’ve thought their balance was a little bit off but maybe there was a bit of a backlash against people like Jim Hand who were shoutin’ and mouthin’ about this. Maybe the boys inside in Radio 2 decided that they’ve listened to enough of this abuse, and said, “Fuck ye, we won’t play any of ye.” And maybe I came in under that umbrella as well. Fellas who shout and roar would want to be very careful and they’d want to be very careful about who they represent. I’ve brought out more records in this country than any man and I’ve had more chart hits than anyone and you never heard me shouting and roaring. If I have something to say I’ll say it to the person’s face.
How do you react to the oft-quoted definition of a gentleman as “someone who knows how to play the accordion but doesn’t”?
I never heard that before. That’s a new one on me.
Well, you must be aware that the accordion does have something of a bad reputation?
Does it? An auld squeeze box? I never actually heard that, that the accordion has a bad reputation. Is it because you pull it in and out?
I think it’s more of bad reputation musically. It’s certainly not as respected as the guitar, say, or the violin.
I never encountered that. The accordion was always part of my life. I’ve never appeared without an accordion. I’ve played one on every one of my records. I’m a self-taught accordionist. I play a five-row continental accordion, which is quite unusual. And when you see Sharon Shannon now and all these Tex Mex videos on the television, I think the joke about the accordion is over. Whether the joke about people who play the accordion is over remains to be seen. One way or the other, I love the auld squeeze box.
Your records have come in for some very harsh criticism over the years. Does that hurt you?
No, but I’d listen to the criticism and if the daylights was cut out of any of my records, I’d go back to the studio the next time and try to repair what was wrong. I’d get the best advice and try to make sure that, musically, the record would be right. The content mightn’t be what would suit Dave Fanning or someone like that but, musically, it would be right. Hot Press printed one time that they were delighted that the deejays and the Head of RTE 2 at the time had banned a record of Brendan Shine’s called ‘Biddy From Glenroe’ (laughs uproariously). I forget who actually wrote it but they made a statement to the effect that we have come to a great point in Irish society that people have at last stood up and said, “No, we are not going to play Brendan Shine and ‘Biddy From Glenroe’.” I thought that was hilarious. And I thought that it was great that we were able to command the columns of this massive institution of literature. Ah, but ye didn’t realise that I was gonna come back again, did ye (laughs)?
Would you be prepared to concede that you have made at least some truly dreadful records over the years?
I have, of course. I don’t know any artist who hasn’t.
Do you want to name what you regard as your worst?
I wouldn’t even remember some of them. I don’t like to remember anything bad. What would you regard as a dreadful record?
The rap single, ‘Rince Rock‘n’Roll’, springs quickly to mind.
That was very popular. It even went on Sky television at one point. A friend of mine was over in Europe somewhere and he saw it. And I still get a lot of requests for it. I still do it at my concerts. In fact, a lot of young people have come up to me and said that they really liked it, but that they couldn’t be seen at one of my shows because it would upset the whole balance of their status with some of their friends.
Do you still keep up with musical trends?
Yeah, I do. I have one teenage daughter and the other daughter is only twenty two. I’m also a great listener to radio. A lot of my life is spent in the car and I keep switching from station to station, taking it all in.
What did you think of grunge, for example?
A lot of modern stuff, like grunge or rave, there’s less in it for a fella like me than something like rap or funk or punk or blues. There’s a lot of good things in blues and funk and hard rock music. There’s a lot of mellow things behind the screen. A rock band is only a folk band fuckin’ amplified. The rhythms are the same and the general feel is the same. You can’t change music, you can only change styles. The only difference between what I do and punk or grunge is the way it’s dressed up.
Were you badly affected by the death of Kurt Cobain?
I thought it was sad. Fame is a bit like winning the Lotto. One day, you’re a struggling band and the next you’re a millionaire. That’s very hard to handle. And I see that a few of our own young stars of the moment are having a difficult run and are under terrible pressure too. People like that girl that sings with The Cranberries. She seems to be going the same way as Sinéad O’Connor.
What do you mean exactly?
What seems to happen to some of these people is that they start wanting to get involved in politics and things of the world that don’t really concern them, things that are of absolutely no consequence to them. You have these people standing on the world stage because their music brought them there and then they start talking about things that had fuck all got to do with getting them there. They forget about their music and start bashing world leaders. I think that’s a terrible shame.
‘Do You Want Your Old Lobby Washed Down’ is the quintessential Brendan Shine hit. But what in the name of God is it about?
I don’t know. I think it’s all about Jimmy Crowley complaining about it.
He claims that you stole the song from him.
Ah, the mane auld bollox.
He says that he was just about to record it as a single when you ripped it off from under his nose.
Not at all. That’s all wrong. There was an old man around our area and he used to sing a song called ‘Do You Want Your Old Lobby Washed Down, Mrs. Brown’, and we all used that as a kind of an auld catchphrase. Then, when Jimmy Crowley and Stokers Lodge collected the song they recorded it as ‘Do You Want Your Old Lobby Washed Down, Con Shine’. So naturally, being Shine myself, I was grossly attracted by the thing. Con Shine is obviously some old man around Cork because there are a lot of Shines around Cork. So, Jimmy gave me the song and I recorded it and then Jimmy created blue stink murder over the thing.
He obviously felt that he was more entitled to have a hit with it than you were.
But sure, hadn’t he it out and it wasn’t a hit. Isn’t it a fair world? We’re in Europe now. We’re not in Cork or Roscommon anymore. This is the era of GATT. Okay, there was no GATT that time but GATT is out now and it’s up to everyone to fight for themselves. Ah sure, I’ll go a bit further and say that mine was a better and more commercial version and so it was the one that got played. Like I say, it’s all about demand. GATT.
Eh, right. But I still don’t understand precisely what sort of lobby is under consideration in the song itself and why anyone would want it washed down.
Well, you’ll have to work that one out for yourself. You’re the journalist.
Would there be an element of sexual innuendo involved at all?
There would, I’d say. We all know that a lobby is the front of anywhere so basically it’s your man standing there outside the house and yer one going by saying, “Do you want your auld front washed down?” Sure Jaysus, wouldn’t I be out every day myself (winks).
You must have made a disgusting amount of money over the years. Do you find it difficult to keep track of it all?
Oh, loads of it. Counting it is a full time job. Ah no, I missed out on the big money. I missed out on the showband orgies, the group sex and the big money as well.
You’ve been around a very long time, you’ve been successful for a very long time, and you’re trying to tell me that you’re not rolling in it?
I have always made a living but I’ve also pumped a lot of money back into my business. I’m still on the road and it’s a hard fight nowadays to even survive. Many people have come and gone since I started. Without pumping back money, I’d never have lasted. Look at all the recording I’ve done, all the money that I’ve spent on videos and things like that. I never had any big record company behind me. Lookit, I’ve made a good living and I was able to educate my children, and that’s about all.
Obviously the money you’re earning is still good enough to keep you from retiring?
I couldn’t retire. I say that with my hand on my heart. I never got to the stage that the big stars got to. I’ve done a lot in this music business and I’ve achieved a lot but the likes of Daniel O’Donnell would make about twenty times what I would. I got three quarters the way up the ladder but I never got to the top.
Of course there’s also your farm and your pub.
I love farming. I can never get away from it. I treat it as relaxation. I love to get out on the auld land and watch the auld cattle.
There’s a fair bit of auld money in it as well though, isn’t there?
Well, there would be, but I don’t do very much of it. How can you be away for eight weeks on tour and be a farmer as well? I only have a few auld animals roaming around. Jaysus Christ, sure they’d be waiting for me to come back to give them a bit of grub. But I’m a little bit better than Brush Shiels. I was always slagged for being the farmer, the fella with the muck and the shite on his shoes from the country. All of a sudden then, I see that Brush Shields wants to become a farmer (laughs). I think GATT will have to come in quick.
And the pub?
We don’t run the pub anymore. We have it leased to a man called Ambrose Brown. Actually, talking about sex, since Kathleen and I leased the pub, it’s stayed exactly the same. The customers have stayed the same, the look of the place is the same. But I went into the Gents there recently and I noticed one difference. They have a condom machine now, so I immediately went up to it and did the business (laughs). It doesn’t look bad actually. I’ve seen worse things in the corners of pubs (laughs).
Finally, there’s one important subject on which you, with your impeccable musical and Midlands credentials, are uniquely positioned to comment. What do you think of Donie Cassidy’s wig?
(Pause) Is it a wig? I always had bad sight so I was never that good with the auld lamps. But Jaysus, I think the man has to look well. Any time there’s a politician on television, Donie is sitting behind him. Jaysus, he must be a very good looking fella. Jaysus Christ, you couldn’t blame the man if he did have one. He couldn’t be going up there in them positions, at the Ard Fheis or at a news conference with a big bald head. I think he looks great. I hope I look as well myself in ten years time.